Sonoma County, like so much of the Western United States, is emerging from a particularly damaging fire season. (Yes, on top of coronavirus.) While the impact will be felt for a while to come, no winery, restaurant, or consumer-facing business has been damaged (except for one pottery studio), which means there is still so much to enjoy in the area. And if ever a destination needs help and tourist dollars, it's after a tragedy. Here are ways to enjoy Sonoma in person and virtually.
A damp wine cellar is the last place even the most avid oenophile would visit these days. The thought of visiting California’s infamous wine country may feel doubly daunting, as the Golden State recently became the first in the nation to log more than 600,000 cases of Covid-19. That said, in Sonoma County’s vast hills there are myriad ways to smartly — and safely — enjoy the fruit of the vine. From self-guided vineyard tours to secluded hikes among the redwoods, this haven in Northern California is nature's gift to those in search of safety and solace.
Rules at Play
The government of California is asking people to enjoy its attractions in “a thoughtful, safe, and respectful manner.” In spite of the spike, know that coronavirus case levels differ greatly by area of the state, as do local guidelines. Sonoma County’s are here. A new R.E.S.P.E.C.T. campaign was designed to help travelers remember to “Roam responsibly, Educate yourself, Safety first, Preserve California, Embrace community, Celebrate culture, and Teach others.” Bottom line: Wear a mask, stay six feet apart, and don’t be a jerk.
Show Up for Change
Sonoma’s Black community comprises 2.1 percent of the total county population (smaller than Los Angeles County’s at 9 percent and 13.4 percent of the entire U.S.). Regardless of the numbers, the Black Lives Matter movement has been felt and is moving through Sonoma.
Established in 1953, the Sonoma County NAACP Branch was created to ensure equal rights without discrimination based on race. 100 Black Men of Sonoma County provides services to the local African-American community and the broader community. Both accept donations to support their work.
The family-run Soul of Sonoma (SoS) arranges custom tastings at Black-owned wineries and other area venues, including African-American monuments. Travelers can customize their experiences with music and food-pairing requests.
This has been quite a year for small businesses, and Bricoleur Vineyards is no exception. The new 40-acre estate finally opened in June, after back-and-forth throughout the spring. By a twist of ironic kismet, the French name chosen for the winery, bricoleur, roughly translates to “one who starts building something with no clear plan, adding bits here and there, cobbling together a whole while flying by the seat of their pants.” That’s what this pandemic-year opening has felt like for owner Mark Hanson and his family. Still, they’ve managed to welcome about 60 guests a day, with small groups spreading across the estate’s breathtaking grounds. “Windsor hasn’t been the destination,” Hanson says of their location. “It’s considered an up-and-coming area.” It’s actually the perfect place to avoid the crowds of nearby Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. The Bricoleur team takes their food as seriously as their wines, having nabbed Shane McAnelly, one of the Bay Area’s top chefs, to helm the kitchen. Grab a prepared picnic and a few bottles of vine and spend a few quiet hours among the estate’s olive grove or rose garden.
L’Objet Wines was founded by Danny Glover (no, not that one) after a life in the LA music scene. His Healdsburg winery serves pinot noir, pinot blanc, and rosé along with pairing recommendations not with food, but with music. For example, the 2015 Oehlman Vineyard pinot noir “pairs with Ella Fitzgerald on the Lake Geneva shoreline, taking in the scenery before the Montreux Jazz Festival begins.” One of the few Black vintners in the area, Glover says he approaches his life and work with grace, “despite having been attacked with a baseball bat in my youth, despite having people cross to the other side of the street when they see me approach, despite suffering the prejudices and injustices so well known to those who share my skin color. It is a challenge, but I know we are up to it.” Cheers to that.
Take a Hike (or Paddle Your Own Canoe)
A restorative nature hike through Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is a must during a visit here. Currently, the park is closed as a result of the LNU Lightning Complex Fires, but since this article is going to be up for a long time, it would be a crime not to include it, because it's wonderful. (And it will reopen!) When the park is open, visitors can hit the 20 miles of trails as early as 8 a.m. to roam the Reserve’s 805 acres of ancient glory. As humanity tries to regain its footing, look to the redwood tree — the tallest living thing on earth — which generally lives for more than 500 years. The oldest tree in Armstrong is Colonel Armstrong Tree, who is estimated to be 1,400 years old.
Sonoma’s ideal climate for pinot noir and chardonnay grape-growing is thanks, in part, to the sparkling Russian River. Running low and slow April through October, a self-guided paddle with Burke’s Canoe Trips starts in the heart of the redwood forest. Along the ten-mile route, stop to picnic, swim, or sunbathe, and try to spot a Great Blue Heron.
Retreat into Luxury
After plenty of wine and outdoor adventure, it’s time for a plush home with a hot shower and a deep rest. The 123-acre NewTree Ranch takes a “spiritual-ethical-ecological” approach to farming, nutrition, and wellness, with a swimming pool, hot tub, horse stables, and produce garden. Learn the centering arts of tea-making or flower-arranging and relax into a guided sound bath or socially-distanced yoga class.
“I believe our connection with nature is not a choice, but a necessity,” says Ed Newell, founder and CEO of NewTree Ranch. “We focus on nurturing and healing ourselves and the environment.”
The ranch offers four-night, six-night, or month-long stays, starting at $4,000 per night. The house can accommodate up to eight guests (maximum) on property. A professional two-day deep cleaning and sanitation procedure takes place between visits.
A more traditional (and far less costly) option is Cottage Inn & Spa, which is operating with a new Health & Comfort Commitment. A block from Sonoma’s picturesque town square, the nine-suite hotel is a peaceful hideaway from the day with its quiet courtyard and atrium. Some of the chic rooms have fireplaces; others have Jacuzzi tubs or private patios. All stays include fresh pastries delivered to your room every morning.
Enjoy Sonoma Wherever You Are
You live in the area, but aren’t quite ready to day-trip. You’re long way from California, and dreaming of a future journey to the Golden State. Here are a few ways to bring the taste of Sonoma home in the meantime:
Soul of Sonoma is hosting virtual wine tastings with wines from Black winemakers led by wine expert and educator Shari Sheffield.
Support Black-owned wineries as a member of the Legacy Cellar Club for “wines of the diaspora delivered.” And don’t forget to fill up your digital shopping cart at Field Works where highlights include stemless “Sonoma County”-etched wine glasses; ODE botanical hand sanitizer produced by McEvoy Ranch, a 550-acre farm in Marin County; or handmade face masks by General Knot & Co.
How to Help Sonoma Recovery Efforts
If you want to help the many small and locally owned businesses from afar, you can:
Donate to the Redwood Credit Union's fire fund.
The Press Democrat, a local paper, has compiled other ways to donate and help.